Peeling Back The Labels: ‘Femme’ By Default

Image courtesy: F3arl3ss Photogr4phy.

By Guest Contributor Becca Dickerson, cross-posted from Elixher

I hate wearing heels. I forget to put on eyeliner every morning. I don’t always sit with my legs closed and shaving my head was probably the best decision I could’ve made. I’d much rather spend extra cash on video games. I love tennis and soccer, preferred remote controlled cars over dolls as a child, and most of my childhood friends were male. I’ve been a tomboy for the majority of my life. Boyfriends pressed me to wear skirts. I obliged occasionally but nothing beat a good pair of shorts or jeans. Back then I didn’t realize how much clothing had to do with someone’s sexuality and gender expression.

I made conscious decisions about the way I dressed, from punk-rock style in high school to bright colors and fitted caps in college. I had always dated very feminine women and during those times I was always in jeans, sneakers, blazers—the least feminine clothing I could wear. I dressed the complete opposite when I was with men. And, well, that didn’t work out for a number of reasons.

In college, I immersed myself in the queer community learning as much as I could about it and subsequently about myself. I stopped dating men, finally admitting I didn’t really want to, and sought to form a committed, romantic relationship with a woman.

I met my current girlfriend, Sil, in 2010. She doesn’t use labels but admits to the masculine qualities in her presentation. Her comfort and pride with that is inspiring. But when we first began dating two years ago, it was almost terrifying. I made a lot of assumptions about her: what she would want in a partner and then squeezed myself into a box. I eased into tighter clothing and started folding my legs when I sat down. Sil has never demanded or even seemed to expect anything out of me in terms of dress or behavior. But for some reason I found myself ambling around like a clumsy teenager, trying to figure out how I wanted to present. She shined a harsh light on my own heteronormative views of relationships.

Like Sil, I had never labeled myself. Unlike Sil, however, I never fit inside of one. When we walk down the street a stranger would easily label us “stud” and “femme.” While being called a “stud” leads to unfair and often incorrect assumptions and connotations about who she is and how she acts, it does put her in a position that connotes dominance. I had never been submissive or aware I was seen as such until then. I wasn’t so much frustrated with being unable to pick a label; I was frustrated with having become a “femme” by default.

That largely stemmed from knowing nothing about femmes at all. I’d been taught about the breakdowns of butch lesbians: studs, bois, stems, stone, hard, soft, etc. One Google search would give you articles for days. But I had placed femmes into a tiny box, which consisted of pillow princesses who loved high heels and dresses. When I looked into the breakdown of femmes, I found only a few titles: femmes, stone femmes and lipstick lesbians. Even in queer communities, our society leans toward masculinity. Femmes have long been under the radar, and America’s views of “gay”— or anything else — is white and male centered. Even the lesbian stereotypes lean toward masculine-dressed women. Two feminine women are only for porn—that’s a whole different article.

While my limited reading was fantastic and interesting, it wasn’t helpful. I still didn’t fit into any categories. Old Me, a few friends, and even Sil herself insisted it didn’t matter; I didn’t need a label–other than awesome. Sweet. But I still searched. I loved the butch/femme dynamic of our relationship. I wanted a label less to plaster it across my body but more for the comfort that it existed. I knew I had long since grown out of being a tomboy and that there had to be a step between soft stud and high femme. Then a friend introduced me to a Tumblr devoted to hard femmes.

These were the women who looked like me; shaved heads, piercings, tats–still wearing short skirts, heels and my beloved combat boots. These were women with all sorts of bodies, looking at the cameras with such intense eyes you could almost hear them cussing. They stretch the lines of “pretty” and expand the view of beautiful. Few moments have made me as ecstatic as when I saw that blog. But then came the awkward part; modifying my wardrobe and slipping into my new skin–kind of. The only reason it was awkward was because I was so very aware of my purpose. And so very sure no one would understand its importance–especially my girlfriend.

Suddenly here I was coming out all over again. I haven’t at all figured it out. I’m not sure I even need to now that I have, for a few moments, felt a complete sense of belonging. Sexuality and identity is all fluid—I might decide in a few years I want to wear men’s clothing because, let’s face it, ties are fucking awesome. I hope word gets out soon so there are more tweets under the hard femme hashtag. I’m sure I’m not the only woman struggling with her mid-femme identity, trying to peel back the label and see what lies beneath. Discovering hard femme meant discovering a new label, sure, but it also reminded me I can do whatever I want, however I want. I can now break the bond I’d formed between “femme” and “weak.” I can love my curves and still be queer. It’s okay if no one knows it. I feel pretty badass in my fishnets.

(Photo copyright of F3arl3ss Photogr4phy. To see the rest of the shoot, please visit the Facebook page and don’t forget to click “like”.)

One day, Becca will be a novelist living in a big house in suburban GA. For now, she works in real estate, writes on the side, and shares a studio with her girlfriend. Becca is the Featured Artist Manager for the Brown Girl Love writing project, which publishes women writers of color.

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  • fuzzy femme

    i think it is really important to say that a lot of the people on the hard femme tumblr are NOT women, and if you’re scrolling down and reading them all as such, you’re doing some serious misgendering and erasure. “femme” is not synonymous with “woman” anymore. i am not trying to erase the history of butch/femme identities in lesbian spaces, but it is important to note that for the past twenty years or so, queer femme identity has been expanding so much beyond being embodied just by people who ID as women. as a trans person who is at my core a hard femme but is most certainly not a woman, i just felt the need to say this reminder.

  • fuzzy femme

    i think it is really important to say that a lot of the people on the hard femme tumblr are NOT women, and if you’re scrolling down and reading them all as such, you’re doing some serious misgendering and erasure. “femme” is not synonymous with “woman” anymore. i am not trying to erase the history of butch/femme identities in lesbian spaces, but it is important to note that for the past twenty years or so, queer femme identity has been expanding so much beyond being embodied just by people who ID as women. as a trans person who is at my core a hard femme but is most certainly not a woman, i just felt the need to say this reminder.

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  • Anonymous

    Some of this terminology is new to me: I had never heard of either “stone femme” or “stone butch” nor of “hard femme”. I just went through several webpages on the stone part. I don’t think I quite get why someone would not want to have their genitals touched. Anyone care to explain? (If not: Yes, I know… I need to educate myself)

    • fuzzy femme

      here are some search terms/concepts to consider: dysphoria (gender related or otherwise), prior trauma, safest-sex practices, etc. i’m a sometimes-stone femme who is also trans, and most of my sexual partners are also trans or in some way gender non-conforming. the most liberating thing for me to realize in regards to sexuality is that sex doesn’t have to mean genital contact, sex doesn’t have to mean penetration, sex doesn’t have to mean your whole body being naked or your partner having access to your whole body. setting boundaries, practicing active and laid out consent, being varying degrees of stone/etc, and so on is one way that trans folx and other folx with varying relationships to their body can have really beautiful, sexy, hot, and meaningful interactions with other people. whoa, okay, that’s all the educating i can do about my body and experiences for today.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you very much! That is what I suspected. I hoped to somehow be wrong (neither dysphoria nor prior trauma being positive; I was hoping for some kind of kink).

    • fuzzy femme

      here are some search terms/concepts to consider: dysphoria (gender related or otherwise), prior trauma, safest-sex practices, etc. i’m a sometimes-stone femme who is also trans, and most of my sexual partners are also trans or in some way gender non-conforming. the most liberating thing for me to realize in regards to sexuality is that sex doesn’t have to mean genital contact, sex doesn’t have to mean penetration, sex doesn’t have to mean your whole body being naked or your partner having access to your whole body. setting boundaries, practicing active and laid out consent, being varying degrees of stone/etc, and so on is one way that trans folx and other folx with varying relationships to their body can have really beautiful, sexy, hot, and meaningful interactions with other people. whoa, okay, that’s all the educating i can do about my body and experiences for today.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t see how that would be “like this”. Since I understood the article to be precisely on non-binary butch-femme relationships… (?)

  • JenAbrams

    I wonder how much of this is racial, and how much is regional. I’m a white, 40-year-old queer living in Brooklyn, and this isn’t at all my experience of femme.

    I’m maybe a tomboy femme, or a practical femme. I might wear a miniskirt and 4-inch-heeled motorcycle boots to a show at the theater I work at, but if a lighting instrument breaks, my boots and miniskirt are going to climb a ladder and fix it. My wife and I renovated our house ourselves. I spent two years in Carharts spattered with joint compound, and somehow femme still came through, as evidenced by the way people treated me when I left the house. It’s the contrast that excites me.

    More to the point, though, I find that there is a lot of conversation around femme identity, and especially around the diversity of femme identity, here in NYC. A lot of that conversation, though it definitely includes WOC, is led by white women. So I expect WOC, even here, experience it differently than I do.

    There’s a lot of interesting stuff happening around femme identity in the burlesque community here. That’s a really visible way that people are shaping ideas around femme-ness, and a “discussion” that wouldn’t come up on a Google search.

    When I was a 20-something dyke in Chicago, I was “straight by default” – precisely because I was femme. At that time, in that place, there were limited ways to “flag” as queer and femme wasn’t on the list. I moved to NYC and found that to be a non-issue. The gaydar was differently calibrated. So I do think time and place have a lot to do with it.

  • K

    Great article – I presume the tumblr referred to is http://fuckyeahhardfemme.tumblr.com/

    I had similar revelations as I began to embrace a more femme identity after years and years of androgyny/butch – from this tumblr, as well as inspirational femme friends who demolish every lazy femme stereotype.

  • K

    Great article – I presume the tumblr referred to is http://fuckyeahhardfemme.tumblr.com/

    I had similar revelations as I began to embrace a more femme identity after years and years of androgyny/butch – from this tumblr, as well as inspirational femme friends who demolish every lazy femme stereotype.